BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
Empire grills writer/director Drew Goddard about his exciting new film noir, the title of which translates as ‘Bad Times At The The Royal’. Plus: Chris Hemsworth’s nips!
Inside the anonymous grey building, the air is cooler, thinner, though cut through with quiet urgency and expectation. Goddard himself, despite being in what he describes as “the fine-tuning stage” of the edit of his second directorial outing, Bad Times At The El Royale, is smiling, maybe even surprisingly calm. He has just a handful of weeks to lock the film and deliver it to the studio; a deadline he also describes as the moment “they pry it out of my hands”.
Everything about Bad Times At The El Royale has been fast and in many respects, smooth. It became an official, formed idea, an actual thing, in November 2016. But really, Goddard admits, this was a project he’d been thinking about for years. He’d always wanted to do a film noir, or, more specifically, a film inspired by crime fiction. As a teenager, Goddard graduated from Roald Dahl to Dashiell Hammett, Flannery O’connor and James Ellroy. Then came film noir at college: “When I started to understand not just the genre, but the genre’s place in film history and how that reflected with the times we’re going through.” It’s been a great love affair ever since.
The setting for the story — a hotel, the El Royale — came during a conversation with his wife. “One day I’d been working on something that had a lot of effects in it. I was complaining about how soulless it is, because you’re just watching computer iterations over and over. I said, ‘My next movie is just going to be a bunch of actors in a room talking.’ And we happened to be driving up and down here in the Valley, and there’s a lot of little motels and hotels along the streets, and she said, ‘Oh, you should set something right here.’ It just was one of those lightning bolts.”
The idea percolated for a year, during which Goddard researched the 1960s, combining the hotel setting with the
It’s barely 9am and already nigh-on 100 degrees, the July day that Empire meets Drew Goddard in his office in Los Angeles.
period. When it came to the bullet in the gun, though, just doing it, again it was his wife who spurred him into action. “She is very attuned to me and said, ‘Okay, it’s time. Go write that hotel movie you’ve been talking about.’” Goddard spent two months writing it, with most of the work happening in just three weeks. Three very disciplined weeks, spent in a hotel room, waking at 8am and writing straight for a minimum of 12 hours. A discipline, a “very rigorous” process that Goddard “learned at the foot of Joss Whedon”. It actually boils down to a simple equation, one that is counter-intuitive to how most writers work. Spend
90 per cent of your time on the outline, getting the story right, and ten per cent on writing the actual script. Those intense three weeks were that ten per cent.
The following two months were spent figuring out the budget, still without having so much as shown the script to a studio. “I hired a line producer to help me, because I don’t like to develop things,” says Goddard. “I worked really hard on the script so I could say, ‘Shoot this, this is what I want to do.’” Finally, with a budget and a screenplay, Goddard went to the studios in March 2017.
Word, whispers, whipped around Hollywood. There was an original, exciting script doing the rounds, one that had come completely out of the blue. Pretty much every studio that read Goddard’s screenplay wanted it, he admits, but one meant more than most, his home for The Martian (which earned him an Oscar nomination): 20th Century Fox. GODDARD HAD A story, had a studio, but now he needed a cast to slip into the skin of his characters. And no ordinary cast: this was a true ensemble piece. The first actor on the list and the first to sign: Jeff Bridges, who Goddard describes as “the swing-for-the-fences, dream person to play Father Flynn”, a down-on-his-luck priest who, like the other six leads, checks in to the El Royale one rainy night. They’re all strangers and far from who or what they initially seem.
Bridges, for his part, admits that “it usually takes a long time to decide whether I want to get involved. I roll it around in my head a lot. Every once in a while, a script will come along where it’s an easy situation. That was the case with this one.” After one read, Bridges showed it to his wife and then “I just said, ‘Let’s go!’”
Unsurprisingly, having Jeff Bridges on board out of the gate had its benefits. “I’ve loved Jeff for such a long time. I’ve always wanted to work with him,” says Dakota Johnson, who plays Southern
criminal Emily Summerspring. Playing her sister is newcomer Cailee Spaeny (of Pacific Rim: Uprising and the upcoming On The Basis Of Sex), who had a 45-minute conversation with Goddard before her audition in which they discussed, “Who are you and who am I? We talked about that and his no-asshole policy — nobody on set can be an asshole.”
The requirements for down-on-her-luck lounge singer Darlene Sweet (pretty much all of these characters are down their luck) were a little different. Goddard was determined that she should sing live — no lip synch, no pre-record. He saw several actors (some very famous), but there was magic with Britishborn Broadway star Cynthia Erivo. “Boy, she came into the audition and just... there’s those special moments. I remember feeling it when I first saw Chris [Hemsworth] in that audition ten years ago [for The Cabin In The Woods], and I felt the same way with Cynthia. She started doing the part, and I just began weeping. Then she started singing: it was like the earth moved.”
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Goddard leapt at the chance to work with Chris Hemsworth again, describing Bad Times as a “joyful reunion”. Hemsworth speaks about the director with a similar affection. Drew Goddard is, after all, the man who essentially saved him. Hemsworth had an empty bank account and thoughts of giving up on Hollywood until landing Cabin — Goddard’s directorial debut and the film that changed everything for Hemsworth. That said, Bad Times wasn’t a done deal. “Drew and I stayed close over the years and always talked about doing something else,” remembers Hemsworth. “Then my agent called and said, ‘There’s this great script out there and everyone’s talking about it… it’s by Drew Goddard.’ And I immediately sat up and was like, ‘Wait a second! Why didn’t he call me about this one?!’” Hemsworth had to stop himself blurting out yes without reading a word of the script. But read it he did — and he was bowled over by writing that was “lean and mean, in the sense that it’s thrilling and detailed but there’s pace to it and momentum”. It also offered Hemsworth a completely new challenge, as an actor, playing cult leader Billy Lee. “My character was nothing I have ever really been sent before. It’s nothing I had ever attempted and I was desperately searching for that.”
Bringing up the rear, as the final guest, was Jon Hamm, who was at Sundance when the call came from his agent to say, “If you read the script and want to do it, you need to decide in 48 hours and get on a plane in 72 hours.” He hit both deadlines, compelled by the script — “It was a really cool idea for a movie, which you don’t see very much… I found it to be exciting” — but also the filmmaker. “Drew’s got a sense of magic and wonder and originality and creativity that truly good filmmakers have,” says Hamm. “Working with Drew reminded me very much of working with Edgar Wright. They just want to make movies. They don’t want to make board games, they don’t want make ‘content’, they want to make movies.” Hamm was on board as vacuum-cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan. And the casting was complete.
As with the Cabin In The Woods, Goddard occupies the role of both director and writer. “There are two parts of the brain, right?” he says. “There’s the conscious and the subconscious… I’ve learned to treat the writer and the director as very different. As two different people almost.” And they are, in many respects, two people who cannot, should not, co-exist. Goddard speaks of the moment during pre-production when they must go their separate ways. “For me, it’s partially ceremonial to say, ‘Okay. The writer’s now done. We’re going to shake his hand and wish him good day, and now we’re going on to the director’s job.’” But not until the cast had a chance to hang out with Drew Goddard, the screenwriter. To question things, try things, come
up with new ideas, challenge the ones that already existed. “For someone to be the writer and the director is such, such a bonus,” says Hemsworth. “And especially in Drew’s case. There’s no word on that page, no detail on that set, no piece of furniture, [no item of ] clothing from your costume, that doesn’t say something very specifically. Everything is nuanced and layered with depth and detail and backstory.”
That’s not to say that, after stepping back, Drew Goddard the writer was ever more than a call away. “Whenever we would ever hit a little stumbling block, he could invite that part of himself that was the writer back in,” says Bridges. “And address the challenges at hand. If the dialogue wasn’t ringing true for some reason, to have the writer right on board there...”
Whichever hat he’s wearing at that precise moment, Goddard fundamentally believes in the enduring power of stories, regardless of the business, commercial or even political climate. “To some extent, you do have to adapt,” he says. “Things do change but [not] the basic core parts. People still like stories. People still like storytelling and communal storytelling. There is a very primal level of this that I don’t think will ever change.”
What has changed, without question, is the type of movies that are made. The type that fill out cinema screens, on opening weekend and beyond. That take billion-dollar box offices. And Drew Goddard, as a writer on Deadpool 2 and the upcoming X-men: Dark Phoenix and director of the in-development X-force, is certainly no stranger to franchises or cinematic universes. But a mid-budget movie such as Bad Times, propelled along by a great piece of writing? That’s rare. “There’s certainly these big tentpoles that are eating up a lot of the oxygen,” says Goddard, carefully. “But they’re eating up a lot of the oxygen because people want to go see that. That’s what people want, and I want that too. I’m there every opening weekend.”
Chris Hemsworth, similarly, knows his way around a box office-blasting tentpole movie, but clearly is drawn to both Goddard and Bad Times for similar reasons; his tastes and motivations dovetailing with his director’s. “I feel like there’s now this big void in this type of storytelling,” Hemsworth says. “Absolutely the larger films are sort of my bread and butter and I love them, but there is something different [here] as an actor. There’s something different from the director. There’s something different from an audience’s point of view when you get this type of story… To be swept up in the magic and the chaos of it, but in a different way than just shocking you with big noises and explosions and special effects, you know?”
At the heart of Bad Times, as with many Drew Goddard projects, is the story of what it is to be human, what we do in our relationships, what we do to those we’re in relationships with. “I’m attracted to complicated characters who find connection, even when they should not,” says Goddard. “I love real conflict. To see each other’s point of view, but understand, ‘We may have to kill each other.’ And that is certainly at play here in Bad Times.”
That character-driven work requires intense one-on-one work with each actor. To collaborate, in the truest sense of the word. “I remember one time we were
talking in-depth about my character,” says Cailee Spaeny. “And we both just started crying. Because we have such a deep connection with these people and we wanted them to actually tell a story. We wanted them to be cared for.”
Cynthia Erivo similarly describes a workshop with the director, where they talked for an hour about what Darlene Sweet was trying to do, the walls she put up and why. “As we went on and I got to know him better and he got to know me better, there were moments I’d read something and be like, ‘I wonder if we could try this,’” she remembers. “And he was so open to switching things up and trying things and reworking certain things. I just felt very listened to.”
Such was the extent of their partnership that a significant speech by Darlene was added to the script at Erivo’s suggestion. She sketched out what she thought might work, Goddard sent his thoughts back and at the end of this “game of tennis”, they had a brand-new scene. “That’s a big deal,” says Erivo. “For someone to be able to insert a piece of storytelling that wasn’t there before to their script.”
Sitting with goddard
now, with just weeks left in the edit, it seems extraordinary that he’s only making Bad Times now. Why did it take so long for his life-long love affair to materialise on the screen? “I don’t know,” he says honestly. “I don’t really have a big plan in life. I don’t really think too far ahead. Like, I couldn’t tell you what kind of films I’ll be making five years from now.”
But Goddard can trace a line between his films, the stories they tell, and his own life. From the man he was and the man he has become. “If I look at what I was going through — Cloverfield is about meeting my wife and falling in love. Cabin In The Woods was very much about, ‘Oh, time to grow up. But I don’t want to grow up.’ The push-pull of the adult and the child. The Martian was very much at a time when I was becoming a father — what does it mean, our place in the world, and how do we impart that outward? None of these things were on my mind when I was making them but when
I look back at my life I go, ‘Oh, that’s what was on my mind.’”
And with Bad Times At The El Royale?
Can he see yet what it is, while still in it? “I feel like Bad Times is very much about the time I am at in my life,” he says. “And the war I am living in right now. And how I’m processing that as an artist.” The war Goddard refers to is Trump. It’s no coincidence that he finally wrote the film the same month Trump entered the White House. But this isn’t a film set in 2018 — it’s set in 1969, when another man who had a dangerous relationship with the truth entered the same residence: Richard Nixon. The 1960s were also a decade that saw the rise of cults and the ensuing massacres, as well as the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. “I talked to my parents,” Goddard says, “who were very much teenagers at that time. How does that feel, when you watch these people that you really believe in from an ideological point of view, just get wiped out in front of you? And then have the complete opposite [Nixon] take over… It just felt like the right petri dish for this movie.”
But would this film have been made without 45? Goddard pauses. “I don’t know. I think so. One of the interesting things about studying the ’60s is you realise a lot of the things you’re
dealing with, and not just in America, on a global level, they’ve been here a long time. This is not new. Certainly there are new aspects of the battles that are going on, but a lot of this stuff is stuff that we as a people have been dealing with for quite some time, and it’s not going to go away magically, with one election. These are things that are happening over and over and run much deeper than that.” It’s a theme that plays out in Bad Times, what Goddard calls the “circular nature of time” and how we continue to revisit the same themes, both as individuals and as a society.
Soon, there’s a knock at the door. The writer-director is needed, urgently. And with Drew Goddard there’s no delegating, no passing of the buck. After all, they’ll be coming in just a few weeks. Coming to pry it out of his hands. He’ll be ready. After all, this is the story he’s waited his whole life to tell.
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE IS IN CINEMAS FROM 12 OCTOBER
Clockwise from main: Chris Hemsworth’s cult leader Billy Lee; Cynthia Erivo as hapless singer Darlene Sweet; Jon Hamm’s salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan; Director Drew Goddard with Nick Offerman, Mark O’brien and Jeff Bridges on set.
Clockwise from main: Bridges’ Father Flynn collars Lewis Pullman’s hotel concierge; Sad times for Sullivan; Billy Lee works his charm on Cailee Spaeny’s impressionable young girl; Dakota Fanning’s delinquent Emily Summerspring.
Clockwise from main: Hemsworth and Goddard joke around between takes. Well, Goddard does; The plot thickens for a startled Darlene; Cult members take a trip led by Billy Lee; He’s armed — but is he dangerous?